When it comes to sports games, there are two types of people in the world. Some people get it, and some people don't. Some people want a grandiose simulation-based experience, while others want to randomly tap buttons and watch the magic. The first group, those who want realistic sports games, may have a hard time warming up to EA's fast-paced, no-rules ice hockey game, NHL Rock the Rink. But the game delivers a solid, exciting brand of gameplay that harkens back to a simpler time, when EA was making incredible Sega Genesis hockey games that were light on sim and hard on checks. The game serves as the spiritual successor to EA's Mutant League Hockey, and it demands attention from anyone even remotely interested in the "sports lite" genre.
Let's start with the rules. Rock the Rink removes two players from each team, making it a four-on-four game, if you include the goalies. There's no time clock. Instead, you play to a certain score, which defaults to five. The game also institutes a basketball-like shot clock, which forces you to constantly work your way up the ice. If the clock expires, your player falls over, and the puck gets loose. There are no rules like icing or offsides - the only times play stops is when the puck flies out of play, a fight breaks out, or a goal is scored. So, since penalties are a thing of the past, you can fly around the rink, checking as hard as you possibly can. There are even special checks and shots, like body slams and tornado shots, as well as check-dodging special moves, such as the air deke.
Like Nintendo's classic NES game, Ice Hockey, the players in Rock the Rink are broken down into two groups - small guys and big guys. The small players (termed finesse players in the game) are better shooters, and they can execute special shots. Of course, being smaller players makes them easy to crush, and they can't fight too well either. The big (power) players check much harder, and they can take a little more of a beating before giving up the puck. But they can't maneuver on the ice as nimbly as the small guys.
The game starts you off with a collection of make-believe teams, such as the Cabbies and the Sting. As you progress through the game's NHL challenge mode, you'll unlock NHL teams, complete with actual players. The NHL challenge is also the portion of the game that lets you earn upgrades for your teams. You'll earn three levels of upgrades for your speed, power, and shooting. Other game modes include a jump-right-in arcade mode and a tournament mode that lets you crown the King of the Rink. The game has an extensive collection of unlockable options, including different pucks, rinks, and, of course, big-head mode.The gameplay is really something. The game runs at a blazing speed, but the analog control is tight enough to let you weave between players and make your way to the net with ease, once you've spent some time with the game. The control is easy to pick up, and the games are usually short enough to make it an excellent group experience. The only real black mark on the gameplay is a minor one. The fighting is absolutely lame. While you really can't expect a fighting engine worthy of a Tekken or a Street Fighter, the fighting in Rock the Rink consists of four buttons, three different hits, and one block. You and your opponent simply time button presses in hopes of squeezing a hit between blocks. Very boring. Luckily, the game practically asks you if you want to fight (a bell rings and you must hit R2 to actually enter the fight), so you can skip out on the lame fighting 90 percent of the time.
Graphically, Rock the Rink looks pretty sharp. The characters aren't the most detailed player models in the world, but the game's frenetic pace more than makes up for the title's simple look. The models animate pretty well, especially the goalie, who executes stick and glove saves extremely well. The game's soundtrack is made up of a bunch of songs about hockey, but the music only plays when one team is in bonus mode, which pumps up the stats of your entire team for a few seconds. Celebrity Skin by the band Hole plays over the game's prerendered intro movie. The commentary takes on the ESPN style of sports announcing, full of catch phrases and witty pop-culture references. Since the game runs so quickly, the announcer is always talking, calling out big hits, passes, and shots. The announcer remains interesting for about a week, then the repetition starts to become a bit of an issue.
NHL Rock the Rink is a pleasantly surprising "extreme" sports game. It doesn't get muddled down with too much stat tracking or too many gameplay options. It's a basic, bare-bones game that lets you jump right in and score some goals. Hockey fans may find that the game strays a bit too far from their favorite sport, but the game is amazingly exciting and makes a worthwhile purchase for anyone looking for a fast-paced competitive game.